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Productive Relationships: The Way Out of the Cave

He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how. Friedrich Nietzsche

Two big stories this week could hardly be more different: the rescue of 12 boys and a coach from a cave in Thailand and the nomination of a Supreme Court justice. Like most consequential endeavors, these two stories are highly relational, involving teams, leaders, groups, communities and even countries. Yet these two stories point to the stark contrast between relational richness and relational poverty.

Does anyone happen to know the politics of the more than 100 Thailand rescue workers? No. Because the purpose of getting the boys out of the cave superseded any conflicts about how to do it. The huge challenge (danger, the diverse set of rescue workers, multiple languages and skills, the intense attention of the world) was reformed into a single focus: finding a life-saving solution.

Confirming the next Supreme Court justice also involves a large group of people with very different opinions about who and what would be best. Many vehemently believe their viewpoint – progressive, libertarian, conservative -- is the best for the country. Yet the very essence of group-work means – cue Mick Jagger, “you can’t always get what you want.” Collaboration, coordination and, yes, compromise are basic functions that enable groups to work effectively and sustainably.

We all know this. Yet we have devolved to a place where getting our way and winning the battle takes priority over what is most constructive for the country. Somewhere along the way, the Senate confirmation process, like so many political decisions, ends up weaponizing our differences to defeat the other side—a mission of destruction. Win the argument trumps save the country. Charles Eisenstein says it well: When both sides of a controversy revel in the defeat and humiliation of the other side, in fact they are on the same side: the side of war.

Not enough are asking, “What skills, backgrounds and beliefs would make our Supreme Court work most effectively for all the stakeholders of our land?” Instead, too many are fighting for their side to win. It is like a marriage: Are you pulling to win more arguments or are you pulling for a stronger marriage? What is more short-sighted and destructive than trying to prevail in every disagreement? Today do we must choose which we value more: argument-winning or a cohesive country. Pick one.

Civility, Needed But not Sufficient

For many, all of this noisy venom translates into a desire for more civility. The Institute for Civility in Government defines it: claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process. Certainly, being more civil is a worthy goal. Incivility precludes any opportunity. Yet civility is a low bar, somewhere slightly above tolerance and indifference. It is respect absent relationship. It is short on commitment – just enough to force myself to act nice but lacking in vision to see that there is no “them” – just us. Just enough emotion to get us to temporarily “act better” not enough to “be better.” Civility—the Stepford Wives of relationship – is just a placeholder absent real connection. Surely our teaching is to love our neighbor – and even our enemy – not just tolerate him. There is you, there is me and then there is the relationship – us. And getting to us is where the payoff is.

Incivility is a symptom of a bigger problem: a lack of purpose and vision for something larger and more unifying, higher than individual differences and preferences. It lacks empathy and respect for what others are going through. It does not know or want to know their story.

Civility, much preferable by comparison, still wouldn’t have gotten those boys out of the cave; it takes more than that.

We suffer something deeper: relational poverty that allows our differences and disagreements to rule and destroy us. We allow our sense of victimhood and resentment to make us small and fragile leading us to walk away from what our challenges and struggles have to teach us. While we may lament the struggle of dealing with our differences, think of world where we were all exactly the same, with identical opinions and gifts. How boring and how limiting. Our ability to grow, evolve and to innovate is a function of how we respond to differences.

Relationships: Designed for Differences

Our best shot at dealing with rapid change and unexpected circumstances (like finding yourself trapped in cave) is rich, productive relationships that tap into our differences to find innovative and productive breakthroughs. Different opinions, different experiences, different skill sets. Differences alone only lead to disagreements, chaos and often broken relationships. The magic comes from transforming the chaos of differences into productive relationships that make miracle breakthroughs – often after considerable trial and error.

Relationships are usually thought of and branded as safe places to belong and be loved. But, a primary job of relationship is also to introduce us to newness, differences and discomfort that challenges our way of seeing and doing things—not always good. Relationships are the delivery system that introduces us to and enables us to deal with differences.

Sometimes this occurs within the protective shelter of belonging and loving community. Other times it is in the challenging atmosphere of oppositional relationships and even enemies. Our relationships are discomfort-inducing, grace-giving, isolation-countering, accountability-dispensing – learning modules. Sometimes we can only hear and learn uncomfortable things from our friends and sometimes we only get the uncomfortable truth from our enemies. Both are very important to our growth and development. Relationships are also the most powerful accountability mechanism for sustaining change.

It is no accident that most of us marry someone who is quite different from us in key ways. In fact, research shows that marriage has a particularly constructive impact on men that includes a bump of $15,900 to his annual income. Same for parents and kids: parents train kids in traditional ways when they are young and then kids challenge and train parents in the new ways as they grow older. Often, we are most productive working for a boss who is opposite us in several key areas. Smart leaders select staff for specific differences and their willingness to speak up and challenge the status quo. Too many differences yield chaos, too few differences produce death by stagnation. Seeking the diversity of relationships that we all need takes courage.

Too often these days we use our devices to serve as RATs – relationship avoidance technology. By offering us the ability to dodge the struggle and challenge that come with relational differences, we become individually and collectively disabled. Send an email or text to avoid a challenging face-to-face interaction. Ask google to answer my question to avoid having to listen to someone answer and go on-and-on. Access just the news sources that agrees with me. Hook up or indulge pornography to avoid messy relationships. Join a church where everyone agrees with me. Leave if disagreements surface. Outsourcing our uncomfortable interactions risks insolating us from the very differences that might most develop us.

Our uncomfortable, challenging differences should be our new best friend. Thank God there are peace-makers, warriors, rebel-rousers, problem-solvers, devil’s advocates, over-thinkers, compulsives, action-oriented, contemplatives, healers, scab-yankers , jokesters, compassionates, hard-nosed aggressives, big-picture strategists, detailed analytics, traditionalists, and un-conventionals. They are here for a reason and we need them all to play their role – but not to rule.

No surprise that our toxic divide in this country, reflected in today’s Supreme Court confirmation process, can feel as oppressive as being trapped in a cave. Yet the differences that underlie the divide have the potential to be an enormous gift. Our country’s design is for dealing with differences in highly relational ways: voter-based democracy, individual freedom-based rights of the constitution, consumer-votes of a free market, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, trial-by-peers. None of these are perfect which is why our relational system – a gift from earlier generations – is designed to tap our differences and encourage debates regarding how they should change.

The way out comes down to deciding on a very important “why” question: Does our desire to get out of the cave exceed our desire to win our arguments?

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